It's hard to keep an Olympian down after a concussion
Athletes want to compete but return-to-play rules are vital to long-term health
In late 2012, Canadian freestyle skier Dara Howell hit her head during a competition and suffered a concussion. It wasn't until 2016 that she says the symptoms finally went away.
Instead of sitting out after her injury, Howell barely missed a beat, spending the next year feverishly preparing for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where she won a gold medal in slopestyle.
"When I hit my head I went through the concussion protocols right away and passed all of the tests," Howell says. "I tried to just put it out of my mind and not let it affect me. I really didn't listen to the signals.
"My body was telling me that it was injured. It was sore and needed time to recover and just sort of needed a break. Because I was gearing up for the Olympics, I just didn't give myself that opportunity, and that's something I will carry with me forever."
Concussions are hardly uncommon for winter Olympians like Howell. CBC Sports research shows that of 142 Canadians in the running to compete in Pyeongchang in 2018 in a contact, high-impact or speed-driven sport, 48 (one-third) have suffered a suspected concussion, including Howell.
If her injury happened today, it's unlikely Howell would have been allowed to return to the snow so quickly. But it was a different time.
"I went through a really minor protocol," she says. "It was in competition so they did the tests and then came back a couple of days later and did them again. I passed them all. At the time, our organization didn't have the in-depth steps that they do now."
The road back
In the years since Howell hit her head, Freestyle Canada and other national sport organizations have introduced more stringent concussion protocols.
They include immediately removing any athlete with a suspected concussion from competition. Once a concussion is confirmed by a doctor, an athlete enters into the return-to-play protocol. This is a doctor-supervised, step-by-step process in which athletes gradually increase physical exertion and must show they are free of concussion symptoms before moving to the next step.
"The concussion management process must include a medical doctor who will provide ultimate oversight of the athlete's recovery," Freestyle Canada says on its website.
"The medical doctor must be consulted at the start of the recovery process and only a medical doctor may provide a written medical clearance letter for the athlete to return to training or competition."
The way concussions are treated has evolved since Steve Podborski and the Crazy Canucks skied for Canada in the 1970s and '80s. Today, he runs Parachute, which describes itself as "a national charitable organization dedicated to preventing injuries and saving lives."
His message: if concussions are treated properly, there is a roadmap back for athletes.
"The latest information has an adult over 18 getting back in less than two weeks," Podborski says. "If it lasts longer than that, you have a persistent concussion. But typically, if it's just a simple concussion, it's a week. It used to be you think: 'That's the end of my season.' "
Podborski says the most important thing is removing an athlete — elite or amateur — with a suspected concussion immediately from the field of play.
"If they have any of the symptoms, we all agree we're going to tell each other and [tell] them: '[You're] out of the game,' " Podborski says. "So when you hit your head and you're really not thinking very clearly, you get a chance to still get out of the game."
'You don't want to take a step back'
As a former Olympian, Podborski understands it can be difficult for elite athletes to acknowledge they are hurt and to take time out. So it's important that they understand the risks.
"You say to the athlete: 'Is it worth it to you if you're in the game [and you fall] again in the next race and you could be permanently damaged or die?' "
Canadian skicross racer Kelsey Serwa, who suffered a concussion in 2015, says it can be difficult to admit something is wrong.
"Our sport is so competitive," says the 2014 Olympic silver medallist. "Some athletes are afraid to voice how they're doing inside, symptoms and stuff, because there's depth in Canada, which is great, but there's always people chomping at your heels.
"You are an athlete, you want to compete — go, go, go all the time. You don't want to take a step a back. It's who we are."
Podborski hopes that mindset is changing.
"If you break your arm and then pretend it isn't broken and you get back in the game, it's not very smart," he says.
"It's the same with a concussion. If you can't play the game with a broken arm, you can't play the game with a concussion."